Black Reconstruction in America tells and interprets the story of the 20 years of Reconstruction from the point of view of newly liberated African Americans. Though lambasted by critics at the time of its publication in 1935, Black Reconstruction has only grown in historical and literary importance. In the 1960s, it joined the canon of the most influential revisionist historical works. Its greatest achievement is weaving a credible, lyrical historical narrative of the hostile and politically fraught years of 1860-1880 with a powerful critical analysis of the harmful effects of democracy, including Jim Crow laws and other injustices. With a series introduction by editor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and an introduction by David Levering Lewis, this edition is essential for anyone interested in African American history.

W. E. B. Du Bois was a public intellectual, sociologist, and activist on behalf of the African American community. He profoundly shaped Black political culture in the United States through his founding role in the NAACP, as well as internationally through the Pan-African movement. Du Bois’s sociological and historical research on African-American communities and culture broke ground in many areas, including the history of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Du Bois was also a prolific author of novels, autobiographical accounts, innumerable editorials and journalistic pieces, and several works of history. [Publisher’s description]

ISBN: 9780199385652 | Published by Oxford University Press, USA.

The Era of Reconstruction: 1861-1900, published by the National Park Service in 2017, is a useful resource for teachers and students. The document was not created for classroom use, but to produce a “theme study” of the Reconstruction era that would help the National Park Service spotlight nationally significant historic properties related to the time period. The majority of the booklet is an impressive bottom-up overview of the Reconstruction era broken into six major themes. If the textbook coverage of Reconstruction was as good as the National Park Service’s, students would learn a more complete and relevant history of the era. The first four parts of the booklet are ripe with sections that would be worthwhile to pull out for use in the classroom.

In particular, the introduction is one of the better short overviews of the Reconstruction era we’ve seen, with the emphasis placed on the everyday citizens. Every action of the government is preceded in the text by the actions of ordinary people that created space for the government to move. Any teacher looking for a short overview of the time period would find this useful.

“Part 3: Enfranchisement/New Democracy” is a more in-depth look at the expansion of democracy during Reconstruction that could also be used in its entirety in a classroom. It starts with a history of how the franchise began being denied to people of color as it expanded to poor whites before the Civil War, and how that trend was reversed during the Reconstruction years. The chapter centers the expansion of voting rights on Black organizing across the South, touches on the splits in the women’s movement over supporting Black voting rights, and gives a powerful overview of the accomplishments of the multiracial Reconstruction era state governments. It ends with the backlash and disenfranchisement of Blacks at the dawn of the Jim Crow era and discusses the repercussions for poor whites and communities of color across the country, but also includes efforts to fight back. The end of the chapter returns to the achievements of Reconstruction and its lasting legacy.

Here is an excerpt from the booklet, a description of Field Order No. 15,

As U.S. forces occupied areas of the Confederacy, Americans also confronted the question of what sort of labor system would replace slavery. In a “rehearsal for Reconstruction” on the vast plantations near Beaufort, Hilton Head, and the neighboring South Carolina Sea Islands, freedpeople, northern missionaries, the US Army, and investors attempted to build a society founded on free labor. As the United States captured parts of the Mississippi Valley in 1862 and 1863, the crucial battlegrounds of Reconstruction shifted to the Southwest, where planters resisted both the US occupation and slaves’ growing demands for freedom. Like so many Americans dating back to the earliest days of British settlement, former slaves hoped to farm their own land and grow food crops to support their families and communities. Merchants and planters alike, however, believed the future of the South was in cash crops grown on large plantations, and they sought ways to get staple production back on its feet. Amid such conflicting priorities, different solutions emerged at different times and places. Near the end of the war, tens of thousands of freedpeople along the Carolina and Georgia coasts gained temporary access to small plots of land through Major General William Sherman’s famous Field Order No. 15, but most freedpeople were destined to work for white landowners, either for wages or for a share of the crop.

The booklet was prepared by historians Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur for the National Historic Landmarks Program.

The study is available for free download.

Published by National Park Service.

Freedom in Congo Square introduces children to the brutality of slavery and the role of culture in resistance. The award-winning team of author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator R. Gregory Christie describes the life of those enslaved on a plantation, using the days of the week to introduce types of labor, punishments, escapes, religion, and more. Exuberance fills the pages for Sundays when people held in slavery are allowed to gather in Congo Square to rest for a half day, exchange news, play music, and experience “freedom’s heart.” One critique, and something that can be addressed in a read-aloud, is that “slaves” is used throughout, instead of “enslaved Africans” or “enslaved people.” [Description from Rethinking Schools.]

ISBN: 9781499801033  | Published by Little Bee Books.

Papers is the story of undocumented youth and the challenges they face as they turn 18 without legal status. Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate every year from high school without “papers.” Currently, there is no path to citizenship for most of these young people.

The film premiered in 2009 when very few undocumented young people were public about their immigration status. The five young people featured in this film (Monica, Jorge, Juan Carlos, Simone and Yo Sub) risked arrest, detention and deportation simply for telling the truth about their lives. Their families, hometowns and last names are not revealed because of this concern.

The creative and heroic activism of the undocumented immigrant youth movement forced a vote on the DREAM Act in December 2010 where it passed in the House of Representatives but the Senate failed to overcome a filibuster. Intensified undocumented youth activism led to President Obama’s June 15, 2012 Executive Action, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. The undocumented youth movement continues to advocate for immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Graham Street Productions produced this film in association with El Grupo Juvenil (the “Papers” Youth Crew). These youth producers were actively involved in all aspects of production.

This volume builds on the excellent 2009 film Papers: Stories of Undocumented YouthPapers—the book—is a student-friendly collection that continues the conversation begun in the film; undocumented youth from around the world tell their stories with simplicity and intimacy. The passages are short, poignant, evocative, and lend themselves to lots of classroom uses. Julio Salgado’s illustrations—in colors that shout with life and dignity—help make this an inviting book for all. Middle and high school.

ISBN: 9780985748500

Redirects to

Patrice Lumumba (center), at the 1960 round table conference in Brussels to discuss Congo’s independence. Image: Wikicommons.

More than 5 million people have been killed in Democratic Republic of the Congo since the late 1990s, home to some of the most serious human rights violations since World War II. A look back at Congo’s history sets the stage. From 1885 to 1908, Congo was colonized by the king of Belgium, Leopold II, who took it as his own personal property. Initially, Leopold did not know that Congo was rich in wild rubber, one of the hottest commodities on the global market at the time. At the opening of the 20th century, Congo was the most profitable colony in Africa. It is estimated that Leopold made about 220 million francs, equivalent to $1.1 billion today.

Leopold refused to pay a fair price for labor or resources, and instead enslaved the population through a terror campaign, forcing the Congolese to harvest rubber. The magnitude of the violence is incomprehensible. During Leopold’s rule, 8 million to 10 million people were killed through a variety of colonial policies, making it one of the worst cases of European colonial brutality.

Congo’s colonial history foreshadows the current instability and violence plaguing the country. Since 1997, more than 5 million people have been killed there, making it one of the bloodiest battle zones since World War II. That year marked the end of a 32-year dictatorship (1965–1997) led by Joseph Mobutu, also known as Mobutu Sese Seko, a generously compensated and welcomed friend of six U.S. presidents. He came to power by assisting the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in assassinating the first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. They wanted Lumumba dead because of his desire to nationalize natural resources in Congo where the money could be used to create a functioning state.

Just as the bloodshed of the colonial period was financed by highly lucrative natural resources like rubber, the violence today is likewise fueled by natural resources. One of those is coltan, a mineral required for cell phone production. Congo is rich in coltan. By studying this history, we can see a direct connection between the brutality of colonialism and the contemporary injustice in Congo: highly coveted natural resources, exploited by distant, powerful nations.

Download lesson to continue reading.

In this lesson, students will:
  • Describe the salient features of Congo’s history through a meet-and-greet activity.
  • Debate responsibility for crimes against humanity through a trial activity.
  • Explain how coltan, a mineral necessary for the production of cell phones, contributes to violence in Congo today, similar to the role of rubber during the colonial period.
Meet-and-Greet Activity includes roles for:
  • Nzinga Mbemba Afonso / Afonso I, king of the Kingdom of Kongo from 1506–1543
  • Edmund Dene Morel British citizen, journalist, and pacifist
  • King Leopold II of Belgium, Congo colonizer
  • Mary French Sheldon, British travel writer and publisher
  • James Cardinal Gibbons, Catholic Archbishop of Baltimore
  • Roger Casement, Irishman who served as a British representative
  • Leon Rom, head of the Force Publique
  • Charles Lemaire, Force Publique officer
  • Chief Mulume Niama, Congolese freedom fighter
  • Joseph Mobutu / Mobutu Sese Seko, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1965–1997
  • Ilanga, resident of Waniendo Village, Congo
  • Patrice Lumumba, first elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Mark Twain, author and member of the Congo Reform Association
  • George Washington Williams, African American minister, veteran, and historian
  • John Dunlop, co-founder of Dunlop Company
  • Chester A. Arthur, U.S. President
  • Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor
  • General Henry Shelton Sanford, U.S. diplomat turned lobbyist for Leopold
  • Henry Morton Stanley (John Rowlands), explorer and colonizer
  • Reverend William Henry Sheppard, African American missionary for the Presbyterian Church
Trial activity includes roles for:
  • King Leopold II of Belgium
  • Colonial Administrators
  • Force Publique
  • Capitalism
  • Consumers of Rubber
  • Ilanga, resident of Waniendo Village, Congo


First Light (Film) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryFirst Light tells the horrific story of Native American children being forcibly removed from their homes in Maine. The close-up look at Maine gives this film its personal and poignant feel, but the film emphasizes that this was a national phenomenon. As Col. Richard H. Pratt, founder in 1879 of the genocidal Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, said: “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.” First Light is a painful but hopeful film, as it focuses on the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an effort to encourage victims of forcible removal to tell the truth about their experiences and to gain support. Background and teaching materials are included at the website. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

For centuries, the United States government has taken Native American children away from their tribes, devastating parents and denying children their traditions, culture, and identity. First Light documents these practices from the 1800s to today and tells the story of an unprecedented experiment in truth-telling and healing for Wabanaki people and child welfare workers in Maine. [Producer’s description.]

Produced by Upstander Project.

Lion Island (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryLion Island is Margarita Engle’s final volume in a series of historical verse novels about the struggle against forced labor in 19th-century Cuba. Lion Island tells the story of Chinese Afro-Cuban Antonio Chuffat, who collected testimonials for China during their official investigation of abuses in the contract labor system. Professor Amina Chaudhri notes: “Margarita Engle draws attention to topics as diverse as forced migration, foreign policy, cultural blending, racism, poetry, love, peaceful resistance, and the power of words. This poetic glimpse into Cuba’s troubled past shines a light on an important human rights activist and will pique readers’ curiosity about Cuba’s complicated history.” [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

In a haunting yet hopeful novel in verse, award-winning author Margarita Engle tells the story of Antonio Chuffat, a young man of African, Chinese, and Cuban descent who became a champion of civil rights. Asia, Africa, Europe—Antonio Chuffat’s ancestors clashed and blended on the beautiful island of Cuba. Yet for most Cubans in the 19th century, life is anything but beautiful. The country is fighting for freedom from Spain. Enslaved Africans and nearly-enslaved Chinese indentured servants are forced to work long, backbreaking hours in the fields. So Antonio feels lucky to have found a good job as a messenger, where his richly blended cultural background is an asset. Through his work he meets Wing, a young Chinese fruit seller who barely escaped the anti-Asian riots in San Francisco, and his sister Fan, a talented singer. With injustice all around them, the three friends are determined that violence will not be the only way to gain liberty. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9781481461122 | Published by Atheneum Books.

So the Heffners Left McComb (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryThis is one of the best books around describing how white supremacy keeps white people from “crossing the line” and uniting with people of color. Journalist Hodding Carter II tells the story of a well-respected, middle-class white family in McComb, Mississippi, who invited two white civil rights workers to their home for a couple of hours in 1964 during Freedom Summer. The Heffners were not radicals, they were simply trying to be hospitable. The backlash from their peers in the white community was immediate and brutal. The Heffners were harassed and terrorized to the point where they had no option other than to leave town permanently.

Long out of print, So the Heffners Left McComb has just been reissued with an extensive introduction by historian Trent Brown. Brown notes that the story of the Heffners “demonstrates the power of fear, conformity, community pressure, and threats of retaliation of many sorts that silenced so many white Mississippians.” Highly recommended for high school and adults for understanding the “divide and conquer” tactics that continue today. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

On Saturday, September 5, 1964, the family of Albert W. “Red” Heffner Jr., a successful insurance agent, left their house at 202 Shannon Drive in McComb, Mississippi, where they had lived for ten years. They never returned. In the eyes of neighbors, their unforgiveable sin was to have spoken on several occasions with civil rights workers and to have invited two into their home. Consequently, the Heffners were subjected to a campaign of harassment, ostracism, and economic retaliation shocking to a white family who believed that they were respected community members.

So the Heffners Left McComb, originally published in 1965 and reprinted now for the first time, is Greenville journalist Hodding Carter’s account of the events that led to the Heffners’ downfall. Historian Trent Brown, a McComb native, supplies a substantial introduction evaluating the book’s significance. The Heffners’ story demonstrates the forces of fear, conformity, communal pressure, and threats of retaliation that silenced so many white Mississippians during the 1950s and 1960s. Carter’s book provides a valuable portrait of a family who was not choosing to make a stand, but merely extending humane hospitality. Yet the Heffners were systematically punished and driven into exile for what was perceived as treason against white apartheid. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9781496807472 | Published by University Press of Mississippi.


Answering the Cry for Freedom (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryAnswering the Cry for Freedom features engaging stories that use original sources and news accounts of the lives of 13 African Americans—few of whom have made it into standard history textbooks. Some are free, others enslaved, some side with Britain and others with the patriots. All
 of them are fighting for the rights promised in the Declaration of Independence but denied to many. Excellent for read alouds, book circles, or background research for role plays about the U.S. Revolutionary War and the writing of the Constitution. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

Even as American Patriots fought for independence from British rule during the Revolutionary War, oppressive conditions remained in place for the thousands of enslaved and free African Americans living in this country. But African Americans took up their own fight for freedom by joining the British and American armies; preaching, speaking out, and writing about the evils of slavery; and establishing settlements in Nova Scotia and Africa. The 13 stories featured in this collection spotlight charismatic individuals who answered the cry for freedom, focusing on the choices they made and how they changed America both then and now. These individuals include: Boston King, Agrippa Hull, James Armistead Lafayette, Phillis Wheatley, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, Prince Hall, Mary Perth, Ona Judge, Sally Hemings, Paul Cuffe, John Kizell, Richard Allen, and Jarena Lee. Includes individual bibliographies and timelines, author note, and source notes. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9781629793061  | Published by Calkins Creek Books.

Fannie Never Flinched (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History This beautiful book about early 20th-century labor organizer Fannie Sellins begins with her murder by sheriff’s deputies, in broad daylight, at the age of 47. No one is prosecuted. Mary Cronk Farrell then jumps back 20 years to trace Sellins’ life organizing garment and mine workers. Full of photos and primary documents, Fannie Never Flinched puts Sellins’ story in the context of the struggles of workers and the labor movement during the “Gilded Age.” As Farrell, a skilled and engaging nonfiction writer, explains in the author’s note, during the research for the book she realized that the murder of Sellins is part of a much larger pattern of violence against working people. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

Fannie Sellins (1872-1919) lived during the Gilded Age of American Industrialization, when the Carnegies and Morgans wore jewels while their laborers wore rags. Fannie dreamed that America could achieve its ideals of equality and justice for all, and she sacrificed her life to help that dream come true. Fannie became a union activist, helping to create St. Louis, Missouri, Local 67 of the United Garment Workers of America. She traveled the nation and eventually gave her life, calling for fair wages and decent working and living conditions for workers in both the garment and mining industries. Her accomplishments live on today. This book includes an index, glossary, a timeline of unions in the United States, and endnotes. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9781419718847  | Published by Abram Books.


 Milo's Museum (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryMilo’s class goes on a field trip to a museum. Milo learns about the roles of curators and docents, but learns nothing about her own community’s heritage, which is missing from the exhibits. Inspired by the suggestion of her aunt, she sets out to create her own museum with objects that illustrate her family’s history. As curator and docent, she reclaims and honors that history. Milo’s Museum will inspire many young readers to create their own museums and to look at field trips and museums with a more critical eye. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

ISBN: 9781537580968 | Published by Rosetta Press.

Somos Como Las Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryStunning illustrations and short poems describe the beauty 
of life in El Salvador. Then we learn about the threats from gangs that in recent years have forced many to flee their homeland and take the dangerous journey north.

Jorge Argueta was among the first wave of Salvadoran refugees, who fled the U.S.-funded war in their country during the early 1980s. After the war ended, the United States deported immigrants and their children accused of joining gangs. The gang violence, combined with the economic crisis in the region, has led to the current wave of refugees. Argueta collected testimonials from young people who came in this second wave. Then he wrote poems based on their stories about the hardship of leaving family behind and the perils of the journey. Also highly recommended for young children on migration from Central America to the United States is Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote by Duncan Tonatiuh. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

Why are young people leaving their country to walk to the United States to seek a new, safe home? Over 100,000 such children have left Central America. This book of poetry helps us to understand why and what it is like to be them. This powerful book by award-winning Salvadoran poet Jorge Argueta describes the terrible process that leads young people to undertake the extreme hardships and risks involved in the journey to what they hope will be a new life of safety and opportunity. A refugee from El Salvador’s war in the eighties, Argueta was born to explain the tragic choice confronting young Central Americans today who are saying goodbye to everything they know because they fear for their lives. This book brings home their situation and will help young people who are living in safety to understand those who are not.

Compelling, timely and eloquent, this book is beautifully illustrated by master artist Alfonso Ruano who also illustrated The Composition, considered one of the 100 Greatest Books for Kids by Scholastic’s Parent and Child Magazine. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9781554988495 | Published by Groundwood Books.


 Rad Women Worldwide (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryFrom the authors of Rad American Women A-Z, Rad Women Worldwide has a similarly defiant and playful approach, featuring a few women students may have heard of, but mostly introducing little-known “rad” women who are “passionate, purposeful, and totally powerful.”

It’s hard not to fall in love with women like Sophie Scholl, who defied the Nazis through the propaganda campaigns of the White Rose, distributing leaflets, stenciling graffiti—“Down with Hitler” and “Freedom!” Or anarchist Emma Goldman, whose illegal advocacy of birth control and feminism, labor solidarity, and opposition to the military draft during World War I led to her deportation. Or Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, who organized Nigerian women to fight for women’s liberation and the liberation of their country from British colonialism. The short readings and passionate illustrations lend themselves to mixer activities, introducing students to a sampling of inspiring women from around the world. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

Rad Women Worldwide tells fresh, engaging, and amazing tales of perseverance and radical success by pairing well-researched and riveting biographies with powerful and expressive cut-paper portraits. The book features an array of diverse figures from 430 BCE to 2016, spanning 31 countries around the world, from Hatshepsut (the great female king who ruled Egypt peacefully for two decades) and Malala Yousafzi (the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize) to Poly Styrene (legendary teenage punk and lead singer of X-Ray Spex) and Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft (polar explorers and the first women to cross Antarctica). An additional 250 names of international rad women are also included as a reference for readers to continue their own research.

This progressive and visually arresting book is a compelling addition to women’s history and belongs on the shelf of every school, library, and home. Together, these stories show the immense range of what women have done and can do. May we all have the courage to be rad. [Publisher’s description]

Women featured:

Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma)
Bastardilla (Colombia)
Birute Mary Galdikis (Canada)
Buffy Sainte-Marie (Canada)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
Dame Katerina Te Heikōkō Mataira (New Zealand)
Faith Bandler (Australia)
Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft (Norway & U.S.A.)
Miriam Makeba (South Africa)
Wangari Maathai (Kenya)
Emma Goldman (Russia)
Enheduanna (Mesopotamia)
ENIAC Programmers (U.S.A.)
Fe Del Mundo (Philippines)
Frida Kahlo (Mexico)
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (Nigeria)
Grace “Granuaile” O’Malley (Ireland)
Guerrilla Girls (U.S.A.)
Hatshepsut (Egypt)
Hypatia (Egypt)
Josephine Baker (France)
Kalpana Chawla (India)
Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera (Uganda)
Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Argentina)
Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan)
Maria Montessori (Italy)
Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie (France)
Marta (Brazil)
Nanny of the Maroons (Jamaica)
Policarpa “La Pola” Salavarrieta (Colombia)
Poly Styrene (England)
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (England)
Qiu Jin (China)Junko Tabei (Japan)
Queen Lili’uokalani (Hawaii)
Quintreman Sisters (Chile)
Sophie Scholl (Germany)
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Mexico)
The Stateless
Venus and Serena Williams (U.S.A.)


ISBN: 9780399578861 | Published by Ten Speed Press.

Unbound A Novel in Verse (Book) | Teaching People's HistoryWhen Grace, the enslaved protagonist of this beautiful novel-length poem, turns 9, she is sent to live and work in the big house, forcing a heart-wrenching separation from her family. Then Grace hears that her mother and younger brothers will be placed on the auction block. She steals back to her family and they escape immediately. After a harrowing journey, they join a maroon community in the Great Dismal Swamp. Even in their newfound liberty, Grace’s family is surrounded by wild animals and the threat of slave catchers. In the midst of her new community, Grace struggles to find and define the meaning of “freedom.” Ann E. Burg’s extensive research of the Federal Writers’ Project interviews and at the Schomburg Center are reflected in the details that bring Grace’s story, and this little-told piece of U.S. history, to life. [Review by Rethinking Schools]

The day Grace is called from the slave cabins to work in the Big House, Mama makes her promise to keep her eyes down. Uncle Jim warns her to keep her thoughts tucked private in her mind or they could bring a whole lot of trouble and pain. But the more Grace sees of the heartless Master and hateful Missus, the more a rightiness voice clamors in her head-asking how come white folks can own other people, sell them on the auction block, and separate families forever. When that voice escapes without warning, it sets off a terrible chain of events that prove Uncle Jim’s words true. Suddenly, Grace and her family must flee deep into the woods, where they brave deadly animals, slave patrollers, and the uncertainty of ever finding freedom.

With candor and compassion, Ann E. Burg sheds light on a startling chapter of American history—the remarkable story of runaways who sought sanctuary in the Great Dismal Swamp—and creates a powerful testament to the right of every human to be free. [Publisher’s description]

ISBN: 9780545934275 | Published by Scholastic Press.

Zapata's Disciple: Essays (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryMartín Espada introduces this new edition of his classic essay collection with a story about how Zapata’s Disciple was banned in Tucson when the Mexican American Studies program was outlawed in 2012. He notes: “On the list of banned authors I am keeping company with . . . are some of the finest Latina/o writers alive today. May our words always trigger the sweating and babbling of bigots.” The book is full of poetry and essays that will appeal to high school students: the letter Espada wrote to Nike listing all the reasons “I could reject your offer” to write for their poetry slam; the story of his father, in uniform, being made to move to the back of the bus in Mississippi; the poem about Mumia Abu-Jamal that was banned from NPR. Stunning writing about topics that matter. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

The ferocious acumen with which the award-winning poet Martin Espada attacks issues of social injustice in Zapata’s Disciple makes it no surprise that the book has been the subject of bans in both Arizona and Texas, targeted for its presence in the Mexican American Studies curriculum of Tucson’s schools and for its potential to incite a riot among Texas prison populations.

This new edition of Zapata’s Disciple, which won the 1999 Independent Publisher Book Award for Essay / Creative Nonfiction, opens with an introduction in which the author chronicles this history of censorship and continues his lifelong fight for freedom of expression. A dozen of Espada’s poems, tender and wry as they are powerful, interweave with essays that address the denigration of the Spanish language by American cultural arbiters, castigate Nike for the exploitation of its workers, reflect upon National Public Radio’s censorship of Espada’s poem about Mumia Abu- Jamal, and more. Zapata’s Disciple is a potent assault on the continued marginalization of Latinos and other poor and working-class citizens in American society, and the collection breathes with a revolutionary zeal that is as relevant now as when it was first published. [Publisher’s description]

ISBN: 9780810133853 | Published by Curbstone Press.

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryNot enough students learn about the internment (better described as imprisonment) of Japanese Americans during World War II in the United States. But of those who do, even fewer learn about resistance by Japanese Americans. Fred Korematsu believed that what the U.S. government was doing was unconstitutional and fought his internment all the way to the Supreme Court. That is why this story should be in every classroom. Filled with photos, primary documents, and illustrations, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up tells Korematsu’s story, including how the case was reopened in 1983 when lawyer Peter Irons found hidden documents at the National Archives. With discussions of a “Muslim registry” in the news, this book couldn’t be more timely. Middle school and above. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up.

The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9781597143684 | Published by Heyday Books.


Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1 (Film) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryNuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1 is a disturbing film that helps students grasp how U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, beginning in 1946, “terrorized and traumatized” people there, in the words of a Marshallese government official. It’s hard to overstate the racism and depravity of U.S. officials who intentionally treated Marshallese—especially those from the island of Rongelap—as human guinea pigs.

In 1956, Merril Eisenbud, director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency’s health and safety laboratory, described the government’s plans for sending Marshallese back to Rongelap, just three years after the largest nuclear test in history: “That island is by far the most contaminated place on Earth and it will be very interesting to get a measure of human uptake when people live in a contaminated environment.” Eisenbud added, “While it is true that these people do not live the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that these people are more like us than the mice.” Nuclear Savage not only chronicles the experimentation on the Marshallese but also introduces us to individuals who continue to work for justice. It’s a film that needs to be a staple in U.S. and modern world history curricula. [Review by Rethinking Schools.]

Featuring recently declassified U.S. government documents, survivor testimony, and unseen archival footage, Nuclear Savage uncovers one of the most troubling chapters in modern American history: how Marshall islanders, considered an uncivilized culture, were deliberately used as human guinea pigs to study the effects of nuclear fallout on human beings.

Between 1946 and 1958 the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons above ground on or near Bikini and Enewetok atolls. One hydrogen bomb was 1000 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb. Entire islands were vaporized and populated islands were blanketed with fallout. As the film shows, the heavily exposed people of Rongelap were then enrolled as human subjects in the top-secret Project 4.1 and evacuated to a severely contaminated island to study the effects of eating radioactive food for nearly 30 years. Many of the Marshall Islanders developed cancers and had babies that were stillborn or with serious birth defects.

Nuclear Savage follows the islanders today as they continue to fight for justice and acknowledgement of what was done to them. Despite recent disclosures, the U.S. government continues to deny that the islanders were deliberately used as human guinea pigs. The film raises disturbing questions about racism, the U.S. government’s moral obligation to the people of the Marshall Islands, and why the government is continuing to cover up the intent of the tests and Project 4.1 after several decades. [Producer’s description]

Produced by Video Project.

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The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryIn this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation—that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation—the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments—that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.

Through extraordinary revelations and extensive research that Ta-Nehisi Coates has lauded as “brilliant” (The Atlantic), Rothstein comes to chronicle nothing less than an untold story that begins in the 1920s, showing how this process of de jure segregation began with explicit racial zoning, as millions of African Americans moved in a great historical migration from the South to the North.

As Jane Jacobs established in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it was the deeply flawed urban planning of the 1950s that created many of the impoverished neighborhoods we know. Now, Rothstein expands our understanding of this history, showing how government policies led to the creation of officially segregated public housing and the demolition of previously integrated neighborhoods. While urban areas rapidly deteriorated, the great American suburbanization of the post-World War II years was spurred on by federal subsidies for builders on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans. Finally, Rothstein shows how police and prosecutors brutally upheld these standards by supporting violent resistance to Black families in white neighborhoods.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination but did nothing to reverse residential patterns that had become deeply embedded. Yet recent outbursts of violence in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and Minneapolis show us precisely how the legacy of these earlier eras contributes to persistent racial unrest. “The American landscape will never look the same to readers of this important book” (Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund), as Rothstein’s invaluable examination shows that only by relearning this history can we finally pave the way for the nation to remedy its unconstitutional past. [Publisher’s description]

ISBN: 9781631492853 | Published by Liveright.

A Short History of Reconstruction, Updated Edition (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryA newly updated, abridged edition of the prize-winning classic work on the post-Civil War period which shaped modern America.

In A Short History of Reconstruction, Eric Foner redefines how the post-Civil War period was viewed. Foner chronicles the way in which Americans—Black and white—responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. It addresses the quest of emancipated slaves’ searching for economic autonomy and equal citizenship, and describes the remodeling of Southern society; the evolution of racial attitudes and patterns of race relations; and the emergence of a national state possessing vastly expanded authority and one committed, for a time, to the principle of equal rights for all Americans. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9780062370860 | Publisher: HarperCollins

 Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryFinally, here is a politically relevant book to read to young children about contemporary migration issues, including crossing the border without documents and family separation. Duncan Tonatiuh is a master storyteller, using allegory and animals to talk about these harrowing realities in an age-appropriate way. Illustrator as well as author, Tonatiuh has taken forms from Mixtec code and combined them with contemporary colors and textures. The result is an exquisite and crucial book for ages 7 and older. [Description by Rethinking Schools.]

ISBN: 9781419705830  | Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers.


This is a talk delivered by SNCC veteran Charles E. Cobb Jr. on Sunday, January 15, 2017, at the People’s Congregational Church in Washington, D.C. on the occasion of the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday.

By Charles E. Cobb

My thanks to Reverend Hopson, the congregation of Peoples Church, and especially the church’s Board of Christian Social Action for inviting me here. I grew up in the Congregational church. My father, Reverend Charles E. Cobb, pastored St. John’s Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, and later co-founded the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice and became its first executive director. So I feel like I have come back home and welcome the opportunity to speak to you. Thank you.

Julian Bond in Mississippi, 1963 | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Julian Bond in Mississippi, 1963. Photo: Harvey Richards.

My friend and former co-worker in the movement Julian Bond, who is greatly missed, used to say that the primary misconception in the public’s perception of the Southern Civil Rights Movement can be boiled down to three short sentences. “Rosa sat down. Martin stood up. And then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.”

In the minds of many, the movement is thought of as mass protest in public spaces led by charismatic leaders. That is only partly true, however. The organizing tradition—a very old tradition, with roots in slave rebellions—better describes the movement. And, I want to push this forward as what is most relevant for continuing struggle in the 21st century as well as properly understanding movement history. And that does not mean that mass protest—those of yesteryear and those now, contradicts this tradition.

My approach to discussing the movement this morning is from the bottom up, or put another way, from the inside out since I was very much involved with the movement as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. We were an organization of grassroots organizers.

First, as much as the movement challenged segregation, racial discrimination and white supremacy, fundamental to real understanding of the movement are the challenges Black people made to one another within the Black community. This underappreciated dimension of the movement is as important today as it was more than half a century ago. Maybe even more important now, given the kind of violence we are witnessing in Chicago and other cities.

Martin Luther King was born today in 1929; we are celebrating his work. So before going further, let me tell you a story about Reverend King that is relevant to the point I have just made.

Few people give enough thought to the fact that before he achieved national and international renown as a civil rights leader, Martin Luther King was a young local minister in Montgomery, Alabama. How he emerged is important to understanding the emergence of the bus boycott there, which was driven by local people at the grassroots.

After Rosa Parks’s arrest, Black Montgomery organized a highly successful one-day bus boycott. I am tempted here to discuss Mrs. Parks at length. She was much more than a weary dressmaker seeking a place to sit on the bus. As she put it, her life was “a history of being rebellious.”

E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks in Montgomery on March 19, 1956. AP/Gene Herrick

At the end of the day, Montgomery’s Black leadership—many of them ministers—met in Martin Luther King’s church to discuss continuing the boycott until the city committed to desegregation of bus seating. Most who spoke, expressed various degrees of reluctance and fear about doing this. Finally, the preeminent Black leader of Montgomery—E.D. Nixon, one of A. Phillip Randolph’s union men and the former head of Alabama’s NAACP—rose and spoke. As the story came to me from Johnnie Carr, 95-years-old when she was telling it, and part of a core group of women who had been working with Rosa Parks since the 1940s, Nixon basically accused the gathering of cowardice: “You preachers been eating these women’s fried chicken long enough without doing anything for them.” It was women, after all, riding buses across town into the white community to jobs as housekeepers and cooks and nursemaids who suffered regular humiliation traveling on public transportation. “Now,” Mr. Nixon continued, “it’s time to get up off your butts and do something for them!” It was then that a 26-year-old Martin Luther King stood up. Do we even think of Martin Luther King as a 26-year-old? “I am not a coward!” He said. The embarrassed gathering agreed to continue the boycott and Reverend King was elected head of the organization they formed at that meeting to continue the boycott—The Montgomery Improvement Association.

The way to understand this moment, I hope you see, is by understanding the kind of challenges Black people were making to one another across the South. This is what drove struggle and change. Much of this still remains invisible. And broadening this with an almost equally invisible related point: The Movement thrust forward leaders, not the other way around.

However, as important as he was, I am not here this morning to discuss Martin Luther King. I intend to concentrate instead on Mississippi and its lessons, particularly as they apply to these times. That is the state where I worked as a SNCC field secretary from 1962 until 1967, and the state I know the best.

The vicious racial oppression that once so completely defined this state establishes a special kind of clarity for us this morning. To illustrate this, in a moment I will read to you a description of an encounter reported by another friend, and comrade, and hero from the days of Mississippi’s mid-20th century freedom struggle. Sam Block is his name. He, like almost everyone who formed the backbone of the Southern movement, is invisible and he died far too young from both the physical and psychological traumas of that struggle.

SNCC Rally for the Freedom Vote, Hinds County, 1963 | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Rally for the Freedom Vote, Hinds County, 1963. Front row, L-R: NAACP leader Aaron Henry, SNCC organizers Sam Block and Willie Peacock. Back row: Rev. Ed King with bandage on face. Image:

The words will come from a 1962 field report Sam wrote describing the early days of his efforts to organize around voter registration in the Mississippi Delta. Sam was the first of us—meaning the first of us who were young—18, 19, 20, 21, 22, and 23-years-old—to organize for voting rights in the Mississippi Delta—cotton plantation country. The Delta was a vicious place where most Black life had been reduced to plantation serfdom following the dismemberment of Reconstruction. The Delta was where the White Citizens Council was born. Sam began working in a town where the White Citizens Council was particularly powerful—Greenwood—county seat of Leflore County. Greenwood and the rest of the county, like most other Delta towns and counties, was two-thirds Black. When Sam arrived, there were more than 13,000 voting-age Blacks in Leflore County, but only about 200 had succeeded in being registered. Listen to Sam’s report. The N-word, as we now say in polite company, is used in it; but it is necessary, I think. However, I apologize in advance for any discomfort its use causes. Here’s Sam words:

We went up to register and it was the first time visiting the courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the sheriff came up to me and he asked me, he said, “Nigger where you from?” I told him, “Well I’m a native Mississippian.” He said, “Yeh, yeh, I know that, but where you from? I don’t know where you from.” I said, “Well, around some counties.” He said, “Well I know that, I know you ain’t from here ‘cause I know every nigger and his mammy.” I said, “You know all the niggers, do you know any colored people?” He got angry. He spat in my face and he walked away. So he came back and turned around and told me, “I don’t want to see you in town any more. The best thing you better do is pack your clothes and get out and don’t never come back no more.” I said, “Well, sheriff, if you don’t want to see me here, I think the best thing for you to do is pack your clothes and leave, get out of town, ‘cause I’m here to stay; I came here to do a job and this is my intention. I’m going to do this job…”

Now I think this exchange, which took place on the steps of the Leflore County courthouse, explains everything you need to know about the movement. Sam’s words were a promise and a prediction. Along with Sam, those of us in SNCC and CORE especially, dug in and stayed to do the job; were committed to doing the job, and drawing from deep wells of strength in Black communities, broke the back of apartheid in Mississippi. But the outcome did not just affect Mississippi; it changed America. The job we did resulted in changing forever the rules of the national Democratic Party and that is what laid the groundwork for the Obama presidency. This is not boast, but history. Basically: In fighting for the right to vote—and winning—the door was opened to the possibility of winning any elected office, even the highest in the land. As the Black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass pointed out more than 150 years ago and it’s as relevant now as then, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” I stand here in praise of our struggle, and to testify that the violence underlying the Greenwood sherriff’s words reveal the blood-soaked ground in Mississippi and across the American South that has been the price of progress. I stand here to insist that this must never be forgotten, and that there is a debt, a duty—an obligation we have—all of us—to repay this history with continuing struggle.

Approaching this history, there are, of course, some legitimate questions you may want answered in trying to grasp why I think Sam’s courthouse encounter with the sheriff was so significant. Who was Sam Block? He was only 22 when this happened; that’s kind of young, isn’t it? How did he get to Greenwood? What made him stay in defiance of the sheriff’s threat? The larger question is: Is there something we can use here today?

So, let’s look more closely at Sam. Youth comes immediately to mind in this consideration. As I said, he was just 22-years-old at the time of his confrontation with the sheriff. Largely missing from the narrative about the Civil Rights Movement is that in many instances it was led by young people like Sam. To quote Martin Luther King speaking in support of sit-ins at a February 16, 1960, civil rights rally in Durham, North Carolina: “What is new in your fight is the fact that it was initiated, fed, and sustained by students.”

I was a 12th grade high school student when on February 1, 1960, the sit-in movement erupted in Greensboro, North Carolina. Black students there began refusing to leave whites-only lunch counters and restaurants. Within two months such protests had spread to 80 southern cities. The student protests in Nashville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Georgia, and other Southern cities that year, reached us via television and newspapers—especially Black newspapers. And for me and most of my friends, before seeing these sit-ins, civil rights had been something grown-ups did. Now, looking at young people like Diane Nash or John Lewis or Julian Bond—students, my generation—what was coming through to us was that civil rights struggle was something we could do.

We see something similar in the way that protests over the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, have led to an ever-expanding Movement for Black Lives that is led by young people. A whole new set of young leaders has begun to emerge and lay claim to the future they want to live in; launched a fight for their future. As a SNCC veteran, I see a lot of my younger self in this, and applaud it.

Amzie Moore, Mississippi, 1963 | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Amzie Moore, Mississippi, 1963. Photo: Harvey Richards.

Sam was also one of Amzie Moore’s people. That’s who sent him, via SNCC to Greenwood. SNCC, which grew out of the sit-in movement had by 1962 evolved into an organization of organizers, working closely and at the grassroots with older veterans of civil rights struggle—many of them local NAACP leaders like Amzie. You won’t know his name any more than you knew Sam’s, but you need to know some things about Amzie because understanding what he represents is another essential component of any real discussion about the movement.

Amzie Moore was the president of the Cleveland, Mississippi NAACP where Sam had been born and grew up, and had decided that he wanted to tap into and use the young energy he saw in the sit-in students. He admired what the students were doing, but was not interested in organizing sit-ins in his town; he wanted a voter registration campaign. He put that idea on our political plate, challenging our idea that “direct action” only meant sit-ins and picket lines of protest. Amize wanted to see the emergence of Black power in the Delta. The Black people were there; the registered Black voters were not.

As we began working in the Delta, Amzie Moore’s home was our central headquarters. His house was an orientation center, a place for breakfast of scrambled eggs or for a spaghetti dinner; it provided telephone connections and was always full of conversation as well as Amzie’s sometimes grim, sometimes funny stories of Delta life and earlier civil rights struggle. Floodlights washed his backyard because he was certain that one night Ku Klux Klansmen, or white terrorists of some sort, would attack his home. Often Amzie, who had fought the Nazis overseas after all, sat in the bay window of his living room with rifles and pistols, waiting to repel an attack he was certain would come (which may be why it never came).

Our relationship with Amzie puts into perspective yet another important dimension of the movement: The convergence of young people—like Sam…or myself—with older people like Amzie—he was 49-years-old when we met him. I had just turned 19 in 1962. They were willing to share their experiences and open up to us, networks that they had built over many years, even decades, of struggle.

Ella Baker (center) at the Highlander Center.

Ella Baker introduced us to Amzie. She was 59-years-old. You cannot talk of 20th century civil rights struggle without discussing this remarkable woman. And let me also say as an aside here, although it should really be central to any discussion, that you cannot talk about 20th century civil rights struggle without discussing the leadership of women. Ms. Baker was the NAACP’s Director of Southern Branches in the 1940s, was the person who organized Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) after the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. She immediately recognized the significance and potential of the emerging student sit-in movement in 1960 and negotiated $800 from Reverend King to bring student protest leaders together at her alma mater, Shaw College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Out of this meeting came SNCC. As much as anyone, and more than most, her hands and her brains shaped the theory and methods of community organizing which defines the modern Civil Rights Movement. Her main lesson: Organize from the bottom up. “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

Although a number of historical forces mark the era of modern civil rights struggle, in my opinion, the convergence of some very particular and very critical forces laid the foundation for the modern mid-20th century struggle from which there would be no turning back: the commitment to democracy and human rights embedded in the rhetoric of World War Two’s fight against fascism, the accelerating struggles for decolonization in Africa and Asia, post war economic and educational opportunity in the United States with so much of the world in rubble, and finally: the 1954 supreme court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that began the process of dismantling the legal framework which underwrote U.S. apartheid. Importantly, that decision engendered hope, one of the indispensable ingredients for resistance.

Fannie Lou Hamer picketing on Freedom Day, 1964, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Fannie Lou Hamer picketing on Freedom Day, 1964, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

What uniquely marks the era, though, is that in large numbers, people who were usually spoken for by others, began to speak for themselves; and not only that, spoke for themselves in such a way that they could not be ignored. This is very important so let me restate it in a slightly different way: Ordinary people who were usually spoken for by sympathetic advocates, or of, by hostile white supremacists, began speaking for themselves saying, “This is what we demand; this is the kind of society in which we wish to live.” Montgomery, Alabama’s mid-1950s bus boycott and the now almost completely forgotten student struggle in 1951 Farmville, Virginia may be the post-World War II events that best represent this. I also think the person who probably best symbolizes this is Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi. She was a sharecropper and timekeeper on a Delta cotton plantation who became not only a leader of Mississippi’s 1960s movement, but a great national voice for civil rights. In any case, maids, sharecroppers, day workers, cooks, janitors, farmers, factory workers, beauticians and barbers, as I said, ordinary people who were usually spoken for or of—these voices began to be heard, or at least could no longer be ignored in the mid 20th century. And, through organization and direct action they changed a way of life.

It is worth noting as we seem to have entered an era where civil liberties are being eroded in the name of national security that the Civil Rights Movement forced the issue of civil liberties. In 1963 Bernard Lafayette, one of the leaders of the Nashville Student Movement organized the first civil rights mass meeting in Selma, Alabama. When Sheriff Jim Clark burst in with his deputies and disrupted the meeting he was armed with a warrant from the circuit judge empowering him to prevent “insurrection.” And in the months leading up to the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project approached, the state legislature passed a “criminal syndicalism” law. It empowered local authorities to redefine organized civil rights struggle (or labor union organizing) as “terrorism” with 10 years of imprisonment possible for any person who “by word of mouth or written words or personal conduct advocates, instigates, suggests, teaches, or aids and abets criminal syndicalism or the duty, necessity, propriety, or expediency of committing crime, criminal syndicalism, sabotage, violence, or any other unlawful method of terrorism as a means of accomplishing or effecting a change in agricultural or industrial ownership or control or effecting any political or social change….” Whew! After the first group of people tried to register to vote in Sunflower County, Mississippi, white nightriders shot up the Black community. In Ruleville, a tiny Delta town, two girls were wounded. I was arrested for the shooting, by the mayor, who said I had done it to gain publicity for a failing movement. I was let go the next morning. If also charged and convicted as a criminal syndicalist, I could have had 10 years in jail added to whatever sentence I was given for the shooting.

Looking across today’s political landscape I cannot say that such oppressive legislation is no longer possible. Fear often leads to tyranny.

In the United States today, with civil rights and civil liberties so vulnerable, the most important lesson of the Civil Rights Movement is still relevant. You have to make a demand for the kind of society in which you want to live—especially if you want to live in a free society. As we used to say, “Freedom is not free.”

And this brings us to the Movement for Black Lives today. Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter wrote a year or so ago, “When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement [that] Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country—one half of all people in prisons or jails—is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence.” Ms. Garza’s framing mirrors the concerns with systemic oppression that we held while fighting for change in the South.

I, for one, think their protests have been powerful and effective. Now they face the question of organizing beyond protest, a question we had to face too. A question we also have to face is how to support this young movement. We might begin by talking to them seriously about their ideas. I believe the earlier movement history I have offered here can be of some use to the young people working to maintain our ongoing struggle today. Obviously, while not everything from our era will be useful for 21st century activists, there is a core reality that strong movements are built by developing inclusive relationships capable of knitting together strategies formed as a result of listening to ordinary people’s experiences and ideas for change. More than any single thing this is what the movement did in order to engage in effective struggle. I think doing this in the Black urban communities that now form the heart of Black America is much more difficult than what we were faced with in the rural south of the 1960s, but the basic principle of digging in and finding a language that works remains fundamental. This is a conversation we do not have time for this morning. But I do know that this discussion has begun among some of the groups that form the Movement for Black Lives. So, as the Mozambicans used to say in their struggle for independence from Portugal—a Luta Continua, the struggle continues.

Finally, I ask you to consider this which can serve as a theme for today’s struggle as much as it served as the founding principles of the United States in 1787:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

For all the contradictions found throughout U.S. history this is the core, though still unrealized, ideal of the country. But do we really want to do this? Government as we’ve known it since the country’s inception has always been ambivalent, and at many times, hostile to this ideal. And this idea is really the heart of my message to you this morning; what we learn in the passage of time from Martin Luther King’s emergence to the now of Black Lives Matter. It’s the emergence of ordinary people as leaders and spokespeople who are the real force for change—people who keep their eyes on the prize, as the old song goes. And today, this need is more urgent than it has ever been. And perhaps, too, more possible. I am, in effect, challenging each one of you to be the change. A luta continua.

Charles Cobb and SNCC veteran Philippa Jackson, who introducted Cobb at the church service.

Thank you.

Charlie Cobb
Peoples Congregational Church
Washington, D.C.
January 15, 2017


Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a journalist, and the author of a number of books including This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic Books, 2014). Read more.

A farmer plowing in South Carolina, 1866 | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

A sketch by Jas. E. Taylor of farmer plowing in South Carolina, 1866. Image: Library of Congress.

What kind of country is this going to be? This was the urgent question posed in the period immediately following the U.S. Civil War. When students learn about Reconstruction, if they learn about this period at all, too often they learn how the presidents and Congress battled over the answer to this question. Textbooks and curricula emphasize what was done to or for newly freed people, but usually not how they acted to define their own freedom.

This role play asks students to imagine themselves as people who were formerly enslaved and to wrestle with a number of issues about what they needed to ensure genuine “freedom”: ownership of land—and what the land would be used for; the fate of Confederate leaders; voting rights; self-defense; and conditions placed on the former Confederate states prior to being allowed to return to the Union.

The role play’s premise is that the end of the war presented people in our country with a key turning point, that there existed at this moment an opportunity to create a society with much greater equality and justice.

The role play is followed by chapter 11 of Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry into the Civil War and Reconstruction (New Press, 1996) with discussion questions.

Read comments from teachers across the country about this lesson.

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